The Virginia Outdoors Foundation (VOF) capped off its 50th anniversary celebration in 2016 by recording several conservation easements in the last week of December that pushed its portfolio of protected land past the 800,000-acre mark.
Altogether, VOF protected about 21,000 new acres of farmland, forestland and other open space across 39 localities in 2016. Its portfolio, which includes more than 4,000 easements and four open space reserves, now stands at roughly 803,000 acres — an area larger than the state of Rhode Island.
Since VOF was established by the Virginia legislature in 1966, it has protected open space at a rate of nearly two acres every hour, making it not only the largest land conservation organization in Virginia, but one of the largest in the nation. About 95 percent of all Virginians live within 10 miles of VOF-protected land.
VOF’s largest easement in 2016 was on a 1,631-acre, sixth-generation family farm in Amherst County that is the site of Red Hill Farm, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Augusta County saw the highest number of new easements—nine, protecting 1,425 new acres of mostly farmland.
VOF easements help to protect, among other things, 350,000 acres of prime farm soils, 325,000 acres of the state’s best forestland, 4,000 miles of stream and rivers, and 350 miles along designated scenic roads, rivers, and hiking and biking trails. The foundation is responsible for protecting approximately one third of all the land conserved in the six-state Chesapeake Bay watershed since 2000. These protections support the goals of the Virginia Outdoors Plan, which guides conservation priorities in the state.
Conservation easements are voluntary agreements between private landowners and a qualified easement holder such as VOF that limit future development while keeping land in private ownership to be utilized for farming, forestry, and other rural uses. Because of the public benefits associated with limiting development on rural land — protecting water quality, scenic beauty, wildlife habitat, and productive soils — landowners who donate easements are eligible to receive state and federal tax benefits.
A 2014 survey of landowners who donated easements to VOF since 2000 found that 90 percent of them manage the land for agricultural production or forestry. Approximately 60 percent used the Virginia Land Preservation Tax Credits they received to sustain, expand, or start a new farming or forestry operation, and 20 percent did the same for a business unrelated to farming or forestry. The survey also revealed that about three-quarters of easement donors reinvested their tax benefits back into additional conservation practices on their land.